On being seen (Dec14/Jan15)


I got on the bus and sat down next to a young woman dressed a step below business casual. At the next stop everyone shuffled around and she got up and moved two seats down to an empty seat next to another woman. I sat there dumfounded. I had just taken a shower so I didn’t smell. I was dressed nicely in a button down shirt and wasn’t talking on my phone (or to her) or eating or doing anything else objectionable on the bus. Was is because I’m a man? Crap.

I’ve been subconsciously waiting for this to happen. The years I spent living on the female side of androgyny didn’t give me a lot of access to female spaces, but I did tend to be recognizable as safe by many straight and queer women. The farther along into my transition the more I’m losing this sliver of connection. I’m dreading the day when my presence makes someone uncomfortable, or worse, scared.


I tightened my grip around the straps of my tote bag and took in a deep breath. Behind me a large extended family was arguing and ahead people were rushing in from the cold dripping wet. All the cubbies were overflowing with backpacks and boots shoved tight and I stood still in the middle of this brightly lit trailer-sized changing room and exhaled. An older woman standing near me said, “it gets this way near the holidays”, and she smiled as a small boy and his dad pushed past us.

After stopping in Truckee for hot cups of coffee and having almost slipped multiple times on the ice slicking the pavement, we arrived at the Hot Springs. The woods were silent on our long walk up to the tiny co-ed changing room by the pools and snow crunched quietly beneath our feet. The crowded room soon emptied and I ducked into the bathroom and pulled on my new swim trunks. I folded my tee shirt and placed it into my bag and wrapped a towel around my neck and bare shoulders.

We walked out into the crisp cold air to the main pool. The ends of my towel covered the fresh scars on my chest and I looked around wondering if anyone would notice. I gazed out into the forest around us and up into the clear sky. I slid the towel off around my neck and draped it onto an icy plastic chair and for an instant I stood topless for the first time in public. The heat from the pool was sharp against the icy cold air. I felt amazing; what it felt like was normal. My self-consciousness washed away and never came back. Later in the silent tub I got a silent hello and the largest smile from a trans woman sitting on the other side and I ran into another trans guy back in the changing room. He was walking to the shower naked and I was overwhelmed by the idea of one day being so comfortable in my own skin.


A week before I started testosterone last January I went to a biology conference in Austin. At this point I had already come out to everyone, and my friends and colleagues were doing their best to switch pronouns and be supportive. I looked boyish at best and had an entire bathroom plan that involved knowing the locations of all the single stall handicap restrooms and leaving talks a few minutes early to avoid crowds. At one point I was sitting in a hotel room with some new friends after dinner when another roommate came in (he had given a talk earlier on snake venom). He sat down on the bed across from me and friendly asked if I was trans. I nodded as my new friends looked at me inquisitively, and we talked about being LGBT in science.

This year things were different. My labmate and I did a work-trade to pay for our hotel and we were assigned two other guys to room with. They arrived after the first day of talks and even though I haven’t been read female in a long time, my heart was pounding for the first few minutes as I shook their hands wondering if they could tell. Nothing happened. Everything was fine.

The mixing of old and new friends and colleagues at the conference was new in itself. To the folks from my home institution, I’m transgender – they’ve been by my side through the entire process. But to the people I was meeting here, I was just another guy. We all noticed. What really struck me was the contrast between comfort and ease I was able to feel being treated just as a guy vs. the pressure and self-judgment I feel around being seen as trans. I hadn’t realized the extent it weighs on me to worry about who might have heard if someone accidentally uses the wrong pronoun, or be constantly wondering how everyone sees me or what they think.

On the flip side, it also felt weird that my new friends didn’t know I was trans. This was an unexpected feeling, and I still struggle with if and how to out myself, or when. I realize how confusing I must sound to new people when I’m talking about co-hosting an LGBT meet-up at the conference in one breath and then about my ex-girlfriend in another, and then about cute boys and Grindr in the next. Because even though my attraction to men is somewhat new (a topic for a later date), I’ve been part of gay communities for over a decade and I’m struggling with feelings around being uncomfortable when I’m assumed to have a straight history. Yet another artifact of being seen.


Last week I saw my brother for the first time since starting testosterone. I asked him if it was weird for him. He looked at me and said “no.” And that was the end of that.


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